Adult SWAINSON"S HAWK Buteo swainsoni. Fairview Rd, Winnie, TX. One of the many hundreds we witnessed migrating through Texas on this year's spring tour.
“As the song goes ‘What a difference a day makes’...Arriving at High Island late afternoon, full of anticipation of what we might see over the coming days, it was actually quite spooky to walk through the trees and scrub at Boy Scout Woods and not hear a bird call, no ‘chips’, no ‘ticks', no ‘cheks’ no nothing, nitto, zip...apart from the local Northern Cardinals’ incessant ringing ‘woit woit woit’ call, the place was so quiet you could hear a pin drop!
Moving down to High Island beach, things improved somewhat with a huge mass of gulls, terns, pelicans, plovers, sandpipers and other waterbirds for us to sort through. Offshore, Caspian, Royal and Gull-billed Terns were joined by hundreds of Laughing Gulls, an American Herring Gull, a handful of first-summer Bonaparte’s Gulls and a few American Black Terns. Squadrons of Brown Pelicans flew past at point blank range and groups of Blue-winged Teal moved offshore, along with smaller numbers of Little Blue, Tricoloured and Great Blue Herons. Turning our backs on the sea and turning our attention inland resulted in great views of Belted Kingfisher and Northern Caracara, whilst on the beach itself Black-bellied Plovers fed alongside a few Eastern Willets and a handful of diminutive Least Sandpipers. So our first birding in Texas was on reflection not too bad - but where were the migrants that it is famed for?
The following morning, full of enthusiasm and optimism, we made our way down to High Island via the rural gardens and streets of Winnie. Stopping at a likely looking garden, a pair of beautifully marked American Robins introduced themselves as did an obliging Solitary Sandpiper, several pairs of Killdeer and the first of many Blue Jays. A pair of Pileated Woodpeckers also showed well and a Broad-winged Hawk drifted overhead. Add to this a White-winged Dove on a nearby lawn and we were well and truly up and running with our first real Texas birding!
The woodlots and trees at Boy Scouts, Smith Oaks and Hooks were still eerily quiet this morning so an opportune moment arose to sort out the Cave from the Cliff Swallows, our first looks at Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, good looks at Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and a search for Marsh Wren, Common Yellowthroat and a very brief Sora by the roadside.
Heading along to Rollover Pass, we enjoyed good views of Black Skimmers, Greater Yellowlegs and American Oystercatcher as well as a single Long-billed Curlew, a few Semipalmated Plovers and a few distant American White Pelicans. Sorting through the smaller shorebirds produced numerous summer plumaged Short-billed Dowitchers, Hudsonia American Dunlin with their long de-curved bills more reminiscent of Curlew Sandpipers and the more familiar Sanderling and Ruddy Turnstone that we would expect to find back home. Nearby on the grass, several Great-tailed Grackles were displaying, with some of the males appearing close to spontaneous combustion as they tried in vain to impress the ladies!
Late afternoon we were back at High Island and we’d just had a few spots of rain, the wind had gone around to the north, and in the clearing behind the kiosk a dapper male Yellow-throated Warbler dropped into the nearest tree and promptly moved out of view and away. This was a sign that migrants were arriving and word quickly reached us that Smith Oaks had just had a good sized fallout. On our arrival there, a fast moving flock of warblers contained many Tennessee, a handful of Northern Parula, a few Black and White, a couple of Redstarts, Blue-winged, Yellow-throated and best of all a stunningly bright Prothonotary, a dapper Yellow - complete with rusty breast streaks and a male Blackburnian - replete with bright orange throat, face and auriculars. We watched them until they moved off and away - everyone had seen everything and we were ecstatic. A Great Horned Owl perched atop a roadside telegraph pole completed our haul for the day, an impressive 132 species, so yes, what a difference a day makes!
Heading over to Galveston we watched a pod of Common Dolphins from the ferry and a Greater Scaup near the harbour wall was fairly unexpected. Our regular stop at ‘diver bay’ looked like we’d drawn a blank as there were no divers on view, over the next 10 minutes we scanned and scanned but to no avail. A guy on a jet ski set off from the nearby jetty and headed off around the far side of the bayou and - Bingo! The jet ski had obviously disturbed the divers and within a few short minutes, 1 turned to 2, 2 turned to 5, 5 to 15 and eventually James counted 43 Common Loons in one sweep, many in summer plumage, with at least 3 Pacific Loons with them...Result!
On next to Lafitte’s Cove where Northern Parula, Blue-winged, Black and White, Yellow, Hooded and Kentucky Warblers showed well on arrival with Yellow-throated Vireo, Ovenbird, Wood Thrush and Swainson’s Warbler also noted. Both Scarlet and Summer Tanagers were also seen along with a few Baltimore Orioles and an Indigo Bunting. Our time here finished with a Swainson’s Warbler coming down to drink whilst dozens of Tennessee Warblers piled into the trees above our heads before dark.
At the famous Bolivar flats, a confiding Long-billed Curlew walked along the beach quite unconcerned at our presence and up to 5 Piping Plovers showed well amongst their larger longer- billed cousin, the Wilson’s Plover. Also here we were able to compare the longer bill, extensive flank streaking and rufous scapulars of summer plumage Western Sandpiper with the greyer, shorter billed, clean flanked Semipalmated Sandpipers. Several Northern Harriers were hunting the nearby salt marshes and a couple of White-tailed Kites also showed well. A little further along the Bolivar peninsular we called in to get better views of the thousands of American Avocets there. The Avocets obliged as did a pair of summer plumaged Horned Grebes which can be scarce in Texas at this time of year, most having moved north much earlier in the season. Swainson’s Hawks (image below) were on the move with 4 past at point-blank range in 20 minutes, later joined by a soaring flock of 10 Anhingas.
Rain on the upper coast in April usually means lots of birds and today was to be no exception. A good sized fallout had occurred at Sabine Pass and the Tamarisks on the roadside were full of Indigo Buntings, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and both Orchard and Baltimore Orioles - we also witnessed a Ruby-throated Hummingbird come in off the sea! Eventually we reached Sabine Woods and as we entered the place just echoed to the ticking and chipping calls all around us. Throughout the day we certainly saw most or all of the birds present including Worm-eating, Blackburnian, Blue-winged and Yellow-throated Warblers, several Yellow-billed Cuckoos, numerous Indigo Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks and both Scarlet and Summer Tanager. In the back fields a male Painted Bunting showed well as Northern Rough-winged Swallows hawked low over the grasslands. Both waterthrushes were seen at either end of the ponds as were Willow and Least Flycatcher, Lincoln’s, White-throated, White-crowned and Swamp Sparrows and Common Nighthawk. Other groups were reporting birds we had yet to catch up with so before heading off or lunch we noted everything we still ‘needed’ in order to return later on with a plan!
Leaving the bird (and rain) filled woods we headed for lunch at a nearby store and returned to Texas Point Reserve to eat it. As we pulled into the parking lot we could see we were the only vehicle present so we parked facing some Magnolia trees. As we were finishing our lunch one of the group picked up movement on the left hand side of the five-barred gate nearby, a ‘bright yellow' bird was the call from the van (through the rain covered windscreen), within a few seconds this became ‘aren’t there two?’ - yes there were two and yes, they were both bright yellow and yes, they were two cracking Prothonotary Warblers, feeding on the spiders and insects, living in, on, or around the gate. As the rain was starting to ease we walked the short distance from the van to get better views when a stunning male Blackburnian Warbler appeared in the trees above our heads, several Orchard Orioles ‘chipped’ nearby and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird bombed into the Honeysuckle at our feet - this was migration happening right in front of us!
The trail at Texas Point is a figure of 8 shape 200 metre pathway bordered on both sides by scrub, low bushes with heavy leaf litter and understory. Walking this trail three times in the rain in 20 minutes produced 5 each of Hooded, Tennessee and Kentucky Warblers, 2 Worm-eating Warblers, Wood and Swainson’s Thrushes, Ovenbird, Black-throated Green Warbler, Gray Catbird and numerous Ruby-throated Hummingbirds - all in such a tiny area of habitat!
Back into the woods we focused on finding the species which still eluding us. Yellow-throated Vireo showed well as did Brown Thrasher, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Ovenbird. More Blue-wings, Yellow-throated and Blackburnian Warblers followed but we could find the one which we all wanted, the electric blue Cerulean. Covering the site as thoroughly as we could, I kept on returning to the three large Oaks which dominate the woods at Sabine - the place where I’ve seen more Cerulean Warblers that anywhere else on the Upper Coast.
On our 4th (or was it 5th?) circuit, I once again returned to the large Oaks and scanned for movement; then right above my head I caught sight of a short-tailed warbler with gleaming white underparts moving away from me in the leaves. I knew how short-tailed Ceruleans can appear from below so I waited a few seconds for the bird to flip over and bang - a male Cerulean, closely followed about 5 minutes later by a much more vivid blue male, and as we watched them, they both sang. A perfect way to end a thrilling day!
At the regular site off the coast road the local Clapper Rail showed incredibly well and was very vocal! Our search for Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow was just about to be concluded as unsuccessful when one then a second popped up, showing the broad grey nape band and crown contrasting with the buffish supercilium, throat and face. Nearby a very soggy looking Horned Lark was quickly joined by a second and on our return there a few days later both had dried out nicely and looked very smart indeed. Our rail walk at Anahuac produced a single Yellow Rail, 2 King Rails 2 American Bitterns, and numerous Soras, as well as the semi-resident Bronzed Cowbird by the visitor’s centre.
Our day spent up north in the pineywoods produced superb views of Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, both Prairie and Pine Warblers, a singing male Yellow-breasted Chat, 200+ Cedar Waxwings as well as Bald Eagle, summer plumage Common Loon, Eastern Bluebird and the ever-elusive Bachman’s Sparrow. Further south at Martin Dies Jr State park we enjoyed great views of Tufted Titmouse and Yellow-throated Warbler, a mixed flock of warblers containing at least 30 Yellow-rumped and single Blackpoll, Black-throated Green, Parula and Blue-wing. At a site in the Big Thicket we heard Swainson’s Warbler but saw at least 5 Red-headed Woodpeckers, singles of Northern Flicker, Hairy Woodpecker, another sapsucker and several more Red-bellied to give us all of the likely woodpeckers for this trip.
Our penultimate day started off by revisiting many of the sites we’d been to earlier in the trip but they still produced lots of new birds. There were at least 5 Least Bitterns and 2 American Bitterns at Anahuac, 2 Buff-breasted Sandpipers, numerous American Golden Plovers and a few Upland Sandpipers on the flooded fields nearby and a ridiculously confiding Common Nighthawk perched on a roadside fencepost (see image below).
At Bolivar we enjoyed great views of Horned Lark, Northern Harrier and Piping Plover before heading back via a confiding Seaside Sparrow, a pair of Lesser Scaup, several more Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and a scattering of Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks. Our final visit to Rollover Pass produced a beautifully pink-flushed Adult Franklin’s Gull, several American Herring Gulls, 2 Reddish Egrets and around 50 American Black Terns, all these in addition to the thousands of gulls, terns, pelicans, herons, and shorebirds feeding on the estuary.
On our last evening we headed into Smith Oaks for a final effort at catching up with more warblers. As we entered the woods, I bumped into another leader who said it was very quiet in there, and that he was heading off to look for some shorebirds. We persisted however and positioned ourselves underneath the big live Oak which had previously been so good to us in providing views of tanagers, vireos, warblers, thrushes and orioles. Over the next 20 or so minutes we enjoyed a fantastic warbler- fest with around 16 species of warbler, 4 species of vireo together with numerous grosbeaks, orioles and tanagers moving through the trees. It all started off with a couple nearby kindly pointing out a Yellow-billed Cuckoo they had just found which led to close views of a couple of Black-throated Greens, 4 Blackburnians in the same tree, Yellow, Prothonotary, Black and White, American Redstart, Nashville, Yellow-throated and a beautiful male Golden-winged Warbler which was our 27th warbler of the trip - and which rounded our tour off rather nicely.” – Stuart Elsom.